The Beauty of “Immanuel”

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel. (Isaiah 7:14)

This past Sunday I preached on just one word from this famous verse.  But it’s a very powerful word.  It’s a very Christmas word.  It’s the thought I want to share with you this week.

Immanuel, one could argue, is one of the most beautiful words/expressions in the English language.  It’s not a mere collection of sounds as many names are, but really, in English, a phrase that means “God With Us.”  But think just for a moment about how the reality of who Jesus is would be changed if that little preposition “with” was changed.

If Jesus was God “in front of/ahead of” us, he’d be blazing a trail for us.  This is essentially the teaching of the Mormon faith, that if we live like him we can become a god like him.  But if this is who Jesus was, we’d never be able to keep up.  We’d never be able to walk in those footsteps.  That wouldn’t work.

If Jesus was God “after/following/behind” us, he’d be pushing us and moving us forward as an impersonal force. This is essentially the teaching of pantheistic Eastern religions.  But if this is who Jesus was, we’d be floundering around directionless and leaderless, dependent on our own ability to navigate through life.  That wouldn’t work either.

If Jesus was God “above/beyond” us, he’d be looking down upon us from a distance.  This is essentially the teaching of Deism, an understanding that God is out there and that he set the world in motion, but that he has primarily a “hands off” policy concerning it now.  But if this is who Jesus was, he’d be so aloof that he’d never experientially know our problems nor be willing to dirty his hands with the our sins.  That also wouldn’t work.

If Jesus was God “below/beneath” us, our wisdom, our understanding, our feelings, and our choices would be supreme.  This is essentially the teaching of liberal Christianity.  But if this is who Jesus was, he’d be too weak, powerless to defeat the enemies that are too big for us or carry the weight of struggles too heavy for us.

If Jesus, God forbid, was God “against” us, he’d be mercilessly out to get us.  Though they wouldn’t admit it, I would suggest to you that this is essentially the belief of atheists and agnostics.  Most objections to God today are not scientific, but appear to be personal, i.e. people don’t like the way God operates so they choose not to believe in him.  But if this is who Jesus was, “against” us, we obviously wouldn’t stand a chance.

Fortunately, Jesus is none of these things.  He’s God “WITH” us.  And if he’s God “WITH” us, then he’s clearly God “FOR” us.  And finally, as the Apostle Paul says, “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31)  This is the true peace of the season.

Merry Christmas!

Why Membership?

The 21st century is a unique time in church history where “attenders” are tracked in churches more carefully than “members.”  In this era, people shop for churches.  People are also less willing to commit (to anything or anyone) than ever.  Couple that with the fact that a lingering Nietzsche-esque fear and skepticism of organized churches still remains in our society and you have fewer people than ever who feel a need or desire to join membership in a local church.

Consequently, I often get the sincere but misinformed question, “Do people really have to be members of a church to be saved?”  Worse yet, I’ve heard well-intentioned Christians, seeking to emphasize (I think) the complete and free atonement of Christ, who tell others that “you don’t really have to belong to a church to be a Christian.”

It’s true that membership in a Christian church does not grant access to heaven.  In fact, Jesus even tells us there will be hypocrites in the church with the words, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven.”  (Matt. 7:21)  In other words, church membership guarantees nothing.  However, if someone is truly a member of the Holy Christian Church (the invisible group of all true believers that we talk about in the Apostles’ Creed), then they will find their way into a local, visible church.  If someone has a problem with that statement, they probably have a mistaken definition of “church” that includes a lot of baggage that shouldn’t be there.  A “church” is never a building, institution, or tax exempt code, but it is a committed group of believers gathering around Word and Sacrament, with Jesus as their head.

There are two things that I believe are essential to understanding the question, “Why Membership?”

1) I Need Accountability

Can I read the Bible on my own?  Yes.  In fact, simply through reading the Bible and other Christian authors and commentators, one can develop a pretty sophisticated knowledge of Scripture.  Can I even attend public worship and Bible studies with others without committing to membership?  Yes.  Not too many churches will turn you away.  Obviously I don’t technically need membership in a local congregation in order to pray for people or even send money to missionaries.  I would argue that you can probably do a better job of all of these things as a member of a local church, but technically, it’s not mandatory.

There’s one thing though that simply cannot be done without some concept of committed membership – Accountability.

Do we really need accountability to survive in faith?  Absolutely.  It’s very spiritually naive to say “no” and I hope to show you why.  Our sinful hearts are corrupted to the point that we can always rationalize any of our own poor behavior away.  American social psychologist Leon Festinger wrote extensively on the issue of cognitive dissonance, which, in short, states that we do things all the time that don’t match our ideal expectations for ourselves, so we learn to rationalize our behavior to reduce anxiety.  Stated differently, we know we do bad things (i.e. sin), but we become very good at blinding ourselves to our own mistakes, because we wouldn’t be able to survive psychologically without alleviating the guilt of our imperfection.

Christians experience this same cognitive dissonance, but they process their guilt differently.  We know God desires certain behavior.  We fall short of the glory of God (Rom 3:23).  And at that point we either repent or we rationalize.  Oftentimes, we need others to call us to repentance, because we’ve gotten so good at rationalizing our sin away.  Now, who in your life should carry out that often necessary call to repentance?  God designed it to be…….your church! (Matt. 18:15-20 – interestingly, Jesus is talking about the blessings of “church” in that particular section).

Let me give you a concrete example from Scripture.  In 1 Corinthians 5, the church in Corinth has failed to carry out their churchly duty and the Apostle Paul actually has to hold them accountable.  Basically, a man was openly involved in a sinful sexual relationship and the congregation simply looked the other way on the issue.  Paul informs the Corinthian church that the loving thing to do is to cut the man off from church membership.  Paul specifically says this is a duty of the church – “What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church?  Are you not to judge those inside?  God will judge those outside. ‘Expel the wicked man from among you.'” (1 Cor 5:12-13)

The Corinthian Christians were actually doing a very poor job as a church.  Their duty was to hold the man accountable for his life.  Had they been doing their job, they would have called him to repentance without the Apostle Paul’s prompting.  With Paul’s encouragement, they did excommunicate him from the church.

How does the story end?  Fortunately, the Spirit gives us the rest, so that we get a template for handling this type of situation.  In 2 Corinthians 2, we learn that the same man who had been living in sexual immorality had repented.  The Corinthian church, again not doing their job, had not forgiven the man.  Again, upon Paul’s encouragement, they were led to understand that this man should once again be welcomed back into the church.  “The punishment inflicted on him by the majority is sufficient for him.  Now instead, you ought to forgive and comfort him, so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow.  I urge you, therefore, to reaffirm your love for him.” (2 Cor 2:6-8).

The man who was living in immorality clearly needed a call to repentance.  Had he not been a part of a church, who would have held him accountable?  Likely, he would have simply rationalized away his ungodly behavior and eventually died in his sin.  But, because he was called out, he was led to repentance and his relationship with God was restored.

You see, the principle of church membership is a lot like the principle of verbal inspiration (the inerrancy of Scripture), you simply have to have it, because as a sinner, you MUST have the ability and opportunity to be contradicted.  Pridefully, we assume we’re always right.  We assume we’re always a unique example and the rules don’t apply to us.  That’s how pride works.  If the Bible is not truly inspired and inerrant, then I can take anything out of it that I don’t like, anything that is inconvenient for me.  It can’t contradict me.  If I’m not a member of a church, no one can call me out on my sin.  No one watches out for me or watches over me.  I cannot be contradicted.  That is death to faith.

Hebrews 13:7 says, “Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account.”  Now, if church membership in a local congregation is not God’s desire for New Testament Christians, then who exactly are you supposed to be submitting to?

NONE of us should ever think we can do it alone.  While faith is very personal, it’s not at all isolated and trying “do Christianity” in a way that Jesus never intended is more than a little dangerous.

The second aspect to the question “Why membership?” is this….

2) “What can a church give me?” is asking the wrong question

Because of our consumerist mentality, so many Christians find themselves asking the question, “What can this church do for me?” Or, perhaps more noble-sounding, “What can this church do for my family?”  If that’s your perspective on church membership though, you’re asking the wrong question.

The gospel motivates me to give, not take.  Therefore, church membership is much more about “How can I serve others in the church?” than it is “What do I get from/out of the church?”

I’m not suggesting that some churches might not be as good of a fit for a believer as another church.  Believers do have the freedom to make that decision.  Nonetheless, when you read the New Testament texts, the general impression that you have to walk away with is that since Jesus made me part of the Church (i.e. Communion of Saints), I have a new life responsibility to serve my church (i.e. local congregation). Consider the Apostle Paul’s words in 1 Cor 12:7, where he states, “Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.”  The Greek word that’s translated here as the phrase “common good” is the word sumphero (transl.).  It literally means “to bring together for mutual benefit.”  What Paul is saying then, is that God sent his Spirit to live in you, this Spirit provides you with special and unique gifts, and he gave you these gifts so that you would serve others (particularly fellow Christians) with these unique gifts.    Your local church is your natural and God-intended outlet for using these gifts. You simply cannot grow into the person God created you to be unless you’re actively putting these gifts to good use.

(By the way, congregations where clergy do all the heavy-lifting of ministry work are on life support and unless things change, eventually and necessarily must die, because they’re not allowing God’s people to grow up in Jesus.  The church was designed to be a mutually-serving organism, not a you-serve-me institution. For further reading on this, please check out “The Leadership of the Church,” posted last March @ http://wp.me/pIDP5-dW).

Conclusion

There is no doubt that membership in a local congregation is God’s design for Christians. It holds believers who still struggle with sinful natures accountable.  It provides the natural outlet for service that is simply part of the DNA of healthy Christianity.  Membership in a local Christian church that submits to the authority of Jesus Christ as proclaimed by the truth of his Word is nothing to be afraid of, but a blessing to be cherished.

Receiving the Lord’s Supper

Busyness has prevented me from posting for the previous several weeks.  I wanted to share with you one of the things that I’ve put together in the past week though, something I’ll be sharing as a service folder insert with my congregation here in Rochester.  Recently we’ve tried a distribution method for Communion different from what’s been done for a long time.  Some like it quite a bit. Some dislike it quite a bit.  It all leads to the bigger question of why we do what we do in worship, and my hope is that members either love or hate certain practices for the right reasons.  So….

The following is a consideration of the Continuous Flow method of Communion Distribution in worship (and hopefully a worthwhile template for the consideration of all things done in public worship).

For three Sundays spanning October to December we used the Continuous Flow method of Communion distribution on a trial basis at Resurrection.  We appreciated all the feedback from members and there were widely ranging opinions.  We wanted to use this opportunity to provide you with a more thorough analysis of the various considerations that go into distribution methodology.

Biblical – What did they do in the New Testament?

There are four biblical texts which directly speak to the Lord’s Supper (Matt 26:17-30; Mark 14:12-26; Luke 22:7-23; and 1 Cor 10-11).  We know from the accounts of Communion’s institution in the Gospels that Jesus gave us this sacrament in the midst of celebrating the Passover meal, while he and the disciples were reclined at the table.  In the 1 Corinthians text, the Apostle Paul informs us that the community meal of the early Christians (i.e. the “Agape Feast”) served as the backdrop for celebrating the Lord’s Supper, at least till around the end of the first century.[i]  Likewise, the end of Acts 2, which speaks of the fellowship of believers, as well as the Didache, the early Jewish Christian church manual, support the idea of the Lord’s Supper as closely connected with the more casual Christian community meal.

Consequently, while the Bible is very specific in detailing how a communicant should spiritually receive Communion (1 Cor 11:27-29), the Bible says virtually nothing regarding the physical procedure of how a communicant should receive Communion.  Contextually, it was originally received against the backdrop of a fellowship meal of believers.

Ecclesiastical History – What have they done in church history, particularly Lutheran history?

The early Christian church saw the liturgy as a malleable product that began in freedom and moved to form and ritual.  The standardization of liturgical rites and ceremonies did not come about until Roman control and influence several centuries after the formation of the Christian church.  The driving force behind the practices done in worship were twofold: theology and culture.  Church historian James White says that from early on in Christanity’s history “The theological content is constant….The liturgical form, on the other hand, has undergone and continues to undergo changes or modifications in the course of time because of prevailing theological and cultural factors.”[ii]  White is suggesting that what you believe certainly affects what you do in worship as a church.  Likewise, who you’re seeking to communicate gospel truth to (consideration of the recipient), also affects what you do in worship as a church.  Records of regional liturgical practices dating to the first centuries A.D. witnessed to the fact that there was an essential unity in the celebration of Communion despite the diverse languages, cultures, and liturgical rites of the believers around the Mediterranean world.  This concept of unity in Jesus transcending cultural diversity has been a hallmark of the Christian faith from the beginning.

Lutherans historically have regarded many liturgical rites and ceremonies as adiaphora (from the Greek adiaphoron, meaning “a thing that makes no difference”).  In the Formula of Concord, the historical Lutheran church confessed that “the community of God in every place and at every time has the right, authority, and power to change, to reduce, or to increase ceremonies according to its circumstances”.[iii]

A basic but obvious change that has been made to worship since the time of the Reformation has been the length of worship services.  In 16th century Leipzig and Dresden, worshippers received Communion each Sunday, and if there were many communicants that day, services could often last three to four hours.[iv]  (We’ll address this once again under practical issues.)

So, in the history of the Christian Church, much has been debated concerning what is truly being received in Communion, who may receive which elements, what is the proper frequency of Communion.  However, very little has ever been espoused concerning the manner in which a congregation receives Communion.  Historically, it’s simply been too small of an issue by comparison to get much time, energy, or press.

Theological – What truths are we seeking to get across in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper?

What we believe regarding the Lord’s Supper is most easily understood by listening to the words we speak.  The Words of Institution (spoken every time we celebrate Communion) indicate this is Christ’s true body and blood, received in faith principally for the forgiveness of sins.  Explained in more detail in his Large and Small Catechisms, Luther properly taught that in Communion we also receive a strengthening of our faith for Christian living as well as the assurance of eternal life.  To properly receive Communion – recognizing what exists inside me (i.e. sin) and what exists in the Lord’s Supper (i.e. Jesus’ body and blood, the very gospel that forgives and saves me) – we encourage communicants to read through pg. 156 in the front of our hymnal, Christian Worship.

To a lesser degree we confess what we believe about Communion through the distribution procedure in which we partake of it.  Confirmed and prepared members are asked to approach the altar under the direction or our elders.  In the past, they’ve come up in groups referred to as “tables” (since no literal table is present, the communication is perhaps a bit outdated and misleading).  The idea expressed in “tables” is the unity of believers expressing “table fellowship” – which was considered a sign of unity and friendship in the ancient world.  However, as a congregation of believers communes, they’re not chiefly expressing unity with the 10-12 people at their “table”, but with the full congregation of believers present.  Dividing the congregation into smaller segments, while it could be understood properly, technically (somewhat artificially and unnecessarily) segregates a congregation in a sacrament which unifies.

The continuous flow distribution, while it keeps people moving in a line, carries more of a symbol of exile – an image consistent throughout Scripture for God’s people while on earth.  Patriarchs in the Old Testament like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the children of Israel in the wilderness, John the Baptist in the countryside, the Apostle Paul traveling from church to church in his mission work, and even Jesus himself, who claimed the absence of a real home on earth (Matt 8:20), are all images that the Holy Spirit inspires in Scripture to remind readers that this home is not a permanent one, but that we walk, united, to our heavenly Promised Land.

Practical – What common good procedural issues are necessary to consider in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper?

As mentioned earlier in reference to the history of the Christian Church, there was a time and place when Christian worship was considered an all day, or at least multiple hour, occasion.  The roots of this naturally go back to the Old Testament Jewish ceremonial idea of a Sabbath Day.  While having the entire day dedicated to worship and rest is not at all a bad idea, it is not a practical reality for most in the 21st century.  While worship services never have advertised times of ending, whenever you have multiple services on a Sunday morning, and when you include Bible Study, time considerations are legitimate concerns.

At Resurrection, distribution under the method of table(s) requires approximately 15-20 minutes in an average worship service.  Distribution under the method of continuous flow requires approximately 7-10 minutes.  While we’d hope and pray that the worship hour on Sunday mornings is not the believers only contact with God’s Word throughout the week, the average Christian does consider the hour of public worship with their fellow believers to be a spiritual high point in the week.  As worship leaders, pastors have a responsibility to be good stewards of the 60 minutes of worship – making the most of that time for all of the worshippers present.  Under the table(s) method of distribution, the non-communing worshipper (children, visitors, those in instruction classes) experience about a quarter of the worship service in which they are non-participants.  In the early Christian Church, this was a non-issue as catechumens (non-members who were going through instruction) were generally excused before that portion of worship.  Again, worship in the 21st century is a little different and therefore has different procedural considerations.  We don’t structure our worship services merely or primarily for visitors, but repeatedly asking worship visitors to sit in non-participatory fashion for 15-20 minutes is perhaps asking a bit much of them as well as providing more “down time” for members before and after they’ve communed.

It’s also worth noting that continuous flow distribution is not a foreign concept in WELS circles.  It is regularly the distribution method at large WELS worship gatherings.  WELS pastor John Micheel points to it as a legitimate option for time considerations in his 2003 WELS Symposium paper “The Church Offers Holy Communion.”[v]  And, in fact, it is proposed as an option in the worship manual of our WELS hymnal.[vi]

Conclusion

Since the institution of the Lord’s Supper on the night before Christ was crucified, the elements, understanding, and benefits of Communion have remained.  The method of distribution has changed over time and across cultures to best fit the needs of God’s people in public worship.

While Old Testament worship for the Israelites was highly structured by God, the Lord has actually given us very little direction in terms of procedures and customs for public worship for today.  In fact, the passage that most clearly points us to what God desires in worship is the Apostle Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 14:11 “Everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way.”  In other words, have intention, order, and purpose in what you do in worship, and make sure it’s all about our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  That is God’s direction for New Testament worship.

Our decisions for worship at Resurrection are made with the best interest of the body in mind, not as much according to the preferences of individuals.  While we are sensitive to all considerations and all communicants, as a church, we operate as a collective body with Jesus as our head, not as a group of independent-minded believers.  So, while many have varied opinions, “what I like/don’t like” is rarely the predominant consideration in Christian worship.  What glorifies God and benefits God’s people as a unit is the main consideration.


[i] Frank Senn.  Christian Liturgy (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997), p. 61.

[ii] James White, A Brief History of Christian Worship (Nashville: Abingdon, 1993), p. 43.

[iii] Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration, X; Tappert, pp. 611-612.

[iv] Gunther Stiller, Johann Sebastian Bach and Liturgical Life in Leipzig (St. Louis: Concordia Press, 1984), p. 49.

[v] “The Church Offers Holy Communion.”  Rev. Jonathan Micheel.  (Prepared for the Symposium on Holy Communion Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary September 22-23, 2003), pp. 27-28

[vi] Christian Worship: Manual. p.178.